If you'd like to take a moment to have a look over at Writers' Bloc you'll find a nice set of 5 poems that's I'd like you to have a look at and then I've a few words to say about them. The link will open in a new window.
For a very long time I have been preoccupied with what a poem is. I'm not talking about the multifarious and contrary opinions of what makes a poem a poem. I'm talking about fundamentals. All music is made up of rhythm and melody and usually harmony. Go back a step and you can reduce music to pure sound, sound organised in time if you want to be pedantic.
So, what happens when you apply that same kind of logic to poetry? When you peek behind the words, what do you see?
Something to Think About
Can a poem, for example, contain no poetry? That is the question I ask in 'Something to Think About'. What happens when you strip away all the rhymes (internal and external), the metaphors, the similes, the onomatopoeia, the alliteration and the everything-that-most-people-associate-with-poetry? What attracted me to Larkin's poem 'Mr. Bleaney' was the fact that it was just about the most barren thing I have ever read. Even its rhymes were arranged so that if you read the piece properly you missed out on most of them. And yet it was still a poem. Why? Why was it a poem?
The bottom line had to be that a poem was more than an amalgam of technique and form.
'Something to Think About' is a poem about thought. And poems are things to be thought about, not merely read. Every poem contains a poet's thoughts. That is all they contain. And what does the reader do? He thinks about them.
What I'm saying is that poetry at its core is a way of thinking. That's what I was on about in my poem 'Changeling':
Turning fourteen I started
At the time I never really considered what I meant by "thinking poetry". It was such a part of me that it was the expression made total sense and it still does. I had to lose that ability to appreciate it though. It's not as weird as it sounds. I simply find I can tune into the poetic possibilities of what's going on around. As the words pass through my head they sound like bits of poems, opening lines mainly, as if I'm testing out everything I experience to see if there's a poem in it. Most of the time there isn't.
A Thoughtful Poem
The idea of poetry as pure thought is developed further in 'A Thoughtful Poem' which states its purpose explicitly in its opening stanza:
of this poem is to make you think.
It is completely up front with the reader. It is related to an earlier poem called 'Reader, Pleaser Supply Meaning' because I believe very strongly that meaning is the remit of the reader. A poet provides an environment, a framework of words, for the reader to use to hang a meaning on and that is it.
But where does the meaning come from? It comes from the only place it can come from, your life. If you have no knowledge of or experience with a subject then you will not be in a position to fully grasp what's going on. You need to go away and acquire the necessary knowledge before you proceed to the next level. The poem itself may provide that knowledge but you have to process it for it to work.
Do poems go off? People I find, and I include myself here, tend to go for new things. If I see a list of books by an author I'm always drawn to the most recent one. The same goes for a poetry magazine; I veer towards the latest issue. Why? True some poems do date but it takes years; many years. Wordsworth's poetry hasn't gone bad but it has dated; it is no longer as accessible to an audience as it once was.
In this particular poem the point I'm making about additives and preservatives is that once you open up a poem it's no longer new; it affects you, it changes you. I'm talking about the immediacy of reading a poem for the first time. There's just you, alone with the poem. It's one of those moments that you can't get back. And so, I, the poet, leave the two of you together to take as long as you like. If you go back to it later it won't be the same. That's what I was on about in my poem 'Sons' where the poem says:
"What sex am I?"
the poem asked.
"You are a boy."
"Then there is life in me.
I shall go and sleep
with a virgin mind."
A poem is a catalyst, which, according to The American Heritage Dictionary is, "One that precipitates a process or event, especially without being involved in or changed by the consequences." – italics mine.
This is what I was getting at in 'Mirror, Mirror':
(Because poems are whores;
they become what you want,
but there's always a price.)
A poem never changes. The words remain the same. No matter how many people read it, no matter how many different meanings they impose on it, a poem never changes. You do. No one has no reaction to a poem. No matter what they think they will have been affected. Just like an infection though some will shrug its effect off. Others will find their lives changes forever.
The Skeleton of a Poem
Beckett worked with sounds before anything else. If something doesn't sound right then it probably isn't right. A poem needs to flow in a way that prose does not. 'The Skeleton of a Poem' reduces a poem to its most basic elements. There are no proper words asking that you ascribe them with meaning. There are just 'das' and 'DUMs' and that's about it. This is a real poem – I forget which one – stripped down so that all you have is the sound and the rhythm. It is not without meaning because now you'll look at every poem you read and realise that underneath all the cleverness there is a skeleton that is essential of the poem will have to shape and shape is fundamental if you are to attribute any meaning to it.
When you hold a poem in you hand the first thing to feel for is its skeleton, its bone structure. You look for iambs and trochees. In accentual-syllabic verse we could describe an iamb as a foot that goes like this: da DUM. There are others and you can see a whole list in this Wikipedia entry.
If we look at the first stanza of this poem:
da DUM DUM, DUM DUM,
DUM DUM da DUM
what we're presented with is a wee bit on the odd side. No nice iambic pentameters here, oh no. What we have is:
in fact I toyed with the idea if a set of poems showing parts of speech and metrical feet but this one poem gets the basic idea over well enough. Visual poems aside you cannot have a poem without these. Indeed that could be an argument against visual poems being 'poems' but that's an issue for another time.
The Lowest Common Denominator
What does a poem do? What is the first thing it does? Take everything else away and what are you left with? It occupies time and space.
The function of
this poem is
to use up time.
There is no more.
This is the point to 'The Lowest Common Denominator'. The very least that anyone will do when reading a poem is use up time. Whether that becomes a waste of time depends on the individual. So I decided to write a poem that only set out to do that.
It admits up front what its function is. It does so mechanically, like a pre-recorded message. You could leave after the first stanza. You stay of your own free will. You have lost your time; the poem has it now and there are no refunds. You cannot appeal to a higher authority. You cannot ring me up and say, "Jim, could you change your poem so it does something else?" because that is all it was designed to do. Sorry.
The poem is a direct response to people who, after reading a poem or a story or interacting with any art form, come out with something like, "Well, that was a total waste of time." They annoy the hell out of me. Art requires time. Even more, it demands it. Before you get down to liking it or not liking it you have to be prepared to devote time to it. How much is up to you. As I walk around an art gallery I'll glance at every painting there but they do not all get the same amount of time. Some never get a second look. I make that call.
Think about that verb for a moment: devote. I chose it carefully. It has religious connotations, true, but the point I wanted to make was that poetry requires time specifically set aside for its appreciation. You can't have a poetry tape playing in the background while you work on your computer the way you can with music; there's no such a thing as background-poetry. Devotion also suggests zeal. You need to approach poetry with the right mindset. You need to be receptive, open.
The last poem, 'Second Draft', is related to 'A Thoughtful Poem' in that it is also concerned with the ageing process: how poems go off. This is more from a writer's perspective than a reader's I have to say. I look at some of my older poems and I want to take a hatchet to them. I don't of course. They were as good as I could do at the time and they also reflect my mindset when I wrote them. I would tackle the subjects in completely different ways now. It's also a comment on youthful poetry in general. When I see a lot of poems online I just know they're by newbies because they go on and on and on. Mine certainly did.
As I get older I find that I have less that really needs to be said and need less words to say it. I know what you're thinking: Christ, Jim, how can you say that when you look at the length of your posts? and you're quite right. I offer in my defence Winston Churchill. An anecdote my dad was fond of telling concerned how much time Churchill needed before giving a speech:
Winston Churchill is said to have replied, "Two hours," when asked how long he needed to prepare a two-minute speech. When asked how long he needed to prepare a two-hour speech, he said, "I'm ready now." - The Confident Speaker by Harrison Monarth, Larina Kase, p 210
And I'm the same. I've set myself a goal of two posts a week and so I don't have the time to whittle them down to the bare essentials. My poems are a different matter entirely.
I had in mind Beckett's final poem, written on his deathbed, 'What is the Word?' when I wrote this poem. I find the image a very striking one, a dying man searching for that one last word that will give his life meaning. I suspect the word Beckett would have settled on actually would have been 'folly' because he was nothing less than disparaging of his own efforts.
But what are you really trying to say? I've had people ask that. Usually, being Scots, all I get is: Ah don get it. And that's when I know I've usually said too much. Basil Bunting, in his advice to young poets included this section:
Put your poem away till you forget it, then:
6. Cut out every word you dare.
7. Do it again a week later, and again.
It's good advice. I put it this way: Say what you have to say and get off the page.
I think I have done.
So, I'll go.